Mars Atmosphere: Oxygen Detected For First Time In 40 Years

For the first time in four decades, oxygen atoms have been detected in the atmosphere of Mars. The discovery was only made possible by the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA); SOFIA is not a stationary observatory, rather it is attached to a plane and takes its measurements while flying 45,000 feet above the Earth’s surface.

Mars’ oxygen atoms were located in the upper atmosphere of the Red Planet, known to scientists as the mesosphere. Astronomers are hoping that the discovery will help them come to a better understanding of how gasses leached out of Mars’ atmosphere early in the planet’s history. As ScienceAlert reports, it’s also old news that scientists have been vetting Mars as a potential future home for humanity, one we can possibly turn to if Earth becomes uninhabitable or our population swells to a level that the Earth can’t sustain. Therefore, discovery of oxygen in Mars’ atmosphere was definitely exciting for those in the know. Unfortunately, though, researchers only detected about half of the oxygen that they were expecting to find in Mars’ atmosphere.

SOFIA Observatory
[Photo by David McNew/Getty Images]

At this early stage of the Martian oxygen re-discovery, scientists are keeping their fingers crossed that the low oxygen concentration they picked up is the result of atmospheric variations.

This isn’t the first time that oxygen has been observed in Mars’ atmosphere. Back in the 1970s, the Mariner and Viking missions picked up on the Red Planet’s oxygen, too. Unfortunately, Earth’s very atmosphere made it next to impossible for scientists to measure the oxygen in Mars’ atmosphere in the interim, according to SOFIA project scientist Pamela Marcum.

“Atomic oxygen in the Martian atmosphere is notoriously difficult to measure. To observe the far-infrared wavelengths needed to detect atomic oxygen, researchers must be above the majority of Earth’s atmosphere and use highly sensitive instruments, in this case a spectrometer. SOFIA provides both capabilities.”

Earth’s blue skies and abundantly moist and dense atmosphere have stood in the way of the detection of oxygen on Mars for 40 years. The density and water content of Earth’s atmosphere make it incredibly challenging for scientists and researchers on Earth’s surface to get a good glimpse of anything beyond. Fortunately for humanity, scientific research technology has greatly advanced in the last almost half century, and SOFIA solved the problem of seeing through Earth’s atmosphere to detect oxygen on Mars by rising above it.

Mars HD

In layman’s terms, SOFIA is a huge plane, a Boeing 747SP to be precise, outfitted with a 100-inch diameter telescope. SOFIA flies 45,000 feet above the surface of the Earth, which means that it clears enough of Earth’s atmosphere to get a clear, almost-unobstructed picture of Mars. With the help of SOFIA, scientists are finally able to look for oxygen atoms in Mars’ atmosphere for the first time since the days of Viking.

In addition to SOFIA’s high altitude, the observatory is equipped with specialized tools that are designed to ignore Earth’s own atmospheric components when taking measurements of what’s going on on Mars. This enables NASA’s calculations regarding oxygen in Mars’ atmosphere to be very precise.

While the NASA team was happy to tell the world of their historic discovery, they have yet to release details on exactly how much oxygen they observed in Mars’ mesosphere. Other than saying it was around half of what they expected it to be, the researchers have remained mum. The team of scientists is expected to continue using SOFIA to collect data from other areas of the Red Plant’s atmosphere to determine whether or not the low oxygen reading was accurate or the result of variations in the atmosphere on Mars.

[Image via HelenField/Shutterstock]